Ode to Mr. Elwell


Doing algebra homework, circa 1978.

I’ve always been pretty sure that I was the last kid they let into the advanced math track. At the end of 7th grade, we took a test to see whether we’d be going into Algebra or some other kind of not-ready-for-algebra math. I don’t know what that was, but my ensuing struggle with math that was more about letters than numbers made it clear to me that I must have been the cut-off kid on the Algebra list, the last one that got into the advanced party.

I have few memories of that math class. I know I had Mr. Elwell, a kind, quiet man with the kind of dark, bushy mustache that lots of men had back in the late 70s. (The kind my second ex-husband, who probably came of facial-hair age at about the same time as Mr. Elwell, still has, although his is now white.) Despite learning very little algebra from him–and learning was generally a huge part of the criteria when determining whether or not I liked a teacher–I liked Mr. Elwell.

I had him not only for Algebra, but also for Driver’s Ed the fall of my sophomore year. That was the year our junior high was transformed into a middle school, and the 9th graders who should’ve been top dog at Sylvester Junior High were instead lowly freshmen when we all migrated to high school together. A handful of teachers came, too, one of whom was Mr. Elwell.

I’m sure one of the things I liked about Mr. Elwell was that it was impossible to rattle him, which made him different from so many of the men I’d known, starting with my dad. Any other teacher probably would have had some misgivings about my driving group the first day we all climbed into the Driver’s Ed car with him. There was Dorrit Norvell, who, I guessed from her skill, confidence, and obvious boredom, might have been driving since about the 3rd grade. She had eyes sharp as her Pat Benatar-esque attitude, and she made it clear that she did not suffer fools gladly. She scared the shit out of me because, when it came to driving, I was everybody’s fool. Unlike most parents, mine did not do one thing to prepare me for Driver’s Ed before it began. No practice drives, no sitting in the car introducing me to the controls, no nothing. I was a driving virgin that first day in the parking lot, and next to Dorrit, with moves as smoothly polished as her nails, it showed. The only saving grace for me was that the third person in our car was Cam Tu Nguyen. She was no fool–but she was a worse driver than me. Our first day Cam Tu tore up the parking lot at about 5 mph, and I thought Dorrit was going to get whiplash from the way her head snapped every time Cam Tu slammed on the brakes, but Mr. Elwell’s calm never faltered.

Eventually we all made it out onto the streets, even Cam Tu. Although I got better at it, driving was not something that came easily or intuitively to me–kind of like algebra, which is maybe why Mr. Elwell was kind to me, the way we are kind to those who are a little slow or a little fragile. Although I was considered to be a smart kid, driving challenged me. The only test I ever failed was the written driving test. I remember coming out of the DMV office and telling my mom I didn’t pass.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know…” my voice trailed off. “I think I got confused because of the colors of the cars,” I said.

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Well, it seemed like the colors of the cars in the drawings had something to do with the colors of the stoplights in the scenario questions. I was sure it did on this one question, and I got the right answer, but then it didn’t on some others…”

What are you talking about?” she asked, not even attempting to sound sympathetic or like I was making any kind of sense.

“Well, like, if the car approaching the intersection was red, I thought that had something to do with the color of the light, and so if the car was yellow or green…but it didn’t work if the car was blue…” My voice trailed off for a third time. It had made so much sense when I was taking the test. But trying to explain it to my mom, I could hear that it made none.

Later, I would attribute some of my failure on that test to being upset over my break-up the night before with David Ravander, my senior boyfriend who treated me so poorly I finally felt forced to end things between us. That morning of the failed test I couldn’t connect the dots between my broken heart and my foggy, over-thinking brain, but later I saw the lines linking one to the other.

None of my test failure was Mr. Elwell’s fault. He had been a bastion of calm support in that Driver Ed car with Scary Dorrit and Whiplash Cam Tu. Driver Ed cars came equipped with a brake on the passenger side, so that the teacher could, if necessary, save us all in any kind of near-death situation, but I never saw him use it. He didn’t even do it the time I came to a red light, carefully looked both ways to make sure the intersection was clear, and proceeded to turn left.

It wasn’t until after I had completed the maneuver that he said, “Uh, Rita, you might remember that we can’t make free left turns in Washington. You can get a ticket for that.” I felt my bowels begin to turn hot with shame, the way they always did when I’d made a public mistake, but his voice was quiet and calm, and that was all Mr. Elwell ever said about that.

Maybe it was because of that time that I asked him to be my escort for the Homecoming assembly that fall. Or maybe it was because I didn’t really know any of the other male teachers at the high school yet, other than the world history teacher who didn’t like me because I questioned why we spent a whole period watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, or Mr. Carmignani, whose creative writing class I had dropped because he made it clear on the first day that if we didn’t share our inner selves in our writing and our writing out loud with the class, we would not be earning A’s or B’s. I would no more reveal my inner self to my peers than frolic naked down the halls, and a C was unacceptable, so that was that. No creative writing for me.

I needed a teacher escort for the assembly because I was the homecoming princess for my class. This was an uncomfortable honor for me. I had no date for the dance and was facing the humiliating prospect of the Pep Club girls arranging to have some boy ask me if no one came forward. I didn’t want to ask my parents for the money to buy a formal dress, because I knew that we didn’t have much of that kind of money, but I was told that I would have to get one. And, I needed a teacher to escort me down the aisle and up the steps to the stage during the big assembly, and I didn’t really know anyone for that, either.

So I asked Mr. Elwell, who seemed both mildly surprised and quietly pleased. At the morning assembly for underclassmen, I hooked my arm into Mr. Elwell’s and we made our way down the auditorium aisle without incident. It was the stairs to the stage that proved to be our downfall. As I stepped up to the first step, I failed to properly lift the hem of my long, formal, faux-pioneer girl Gunne Sax gown, bringing my shoe down on the inside of its skirt. I realized my mistake immediately, but I didn’t know what to do about it, what with my arm hooked into Mr. Elwell’s and everyone watching and me needing to get up those steps. When I stepped up to the second step, I also stepped further up the hem of my dress. And I did the same with the fourth and fifth and sixth step, even though I knew I was only making things worse. By the time we got to the stage, Mr. Elwell and I were both bent nearly double, as he’d never let go of my arm, and I fell onto it, ears filling with the laughter of my fellow sophomores and those lowly freshmen. Mr. Elwell didn’t say anything; he simply helped me up, re-hooked our arms, and walked me across the stage with as much dignity as he had given me all those times in the driver ed car and in algebra class when I didn’t know the answer.

Years later I would come to see this as a seminal moment, a metaphor for so many things that went wrong in my life. I have had a confounding need to just keep moving doggedly forward, even when it is quite clear that stopping would be the best thing to do–the only thing to do if I did not want my trajectory to end in tragedy. It is has not served me well, nor has my propensity for sticking with others who don’t treat me with the same kind of respect I got from Mr. Elwell.

He was not a very good math teacher for me. I began this essay with the intention of writing about Algebra II, the last math class I ever took because I could no longer fake my way through math without the fundamentals I’d missed in Algebra I with Mr. Elwell. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that he was teaching me something probably more important than how to determine the value of x. He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it.

I like to think he’d be both mildly surprised and quietly pleased.

The poor guy I manipulated into asking me to the dance.

The poor guy I pressured into taking me to the dance.


This piece came out of the last session of my writing class with Kate Caroll deGutes (the one on writing about serious topics with humor). I almost didn’t attend; I’d had a terrible week, and I was feeling so tired and broken on Thursday night that I didn’t think any good would come of it. But as Leonard Cohen told us, the cracks are where the light comes in. The prompt was simply to write about taking algebra. Although I missed 2 of the 5 sessions, getting this essay out of the class was worth the price of admission. Kate is a teacher in the same gentle vein as Mr. Elwell. (Suck it, Mr. Carmignani.) I highly recommend her classes, which Portland-area folks can take at Attic Institute.

Bits and bobs


Oh, hey there. Long time no see. Whatchya been up to?

Me? You know…busy busy busy these days…


I’ve only made it to half the sessions of my writing-about-hard-topics-with-humor class. Which means two. Yeah, that might not have been money so well spent after all, considering the per session cost. And that the response to my last piece was heavy on adjectives such as “hard,” “dark,” and “serious.” I believe the word “grim” might have been used. I’d forgotten that I was supposed to be looking for places to let some light in.

Funny how a seemingly innocuous prompt–

“Two dollars doesn’t seem like much, unless…”

became a piece about income inequality and powerlessness and regret. (Except it wasn’t funny. At all.)

So, I guess I haven’t been busy going to my writing class. Or writing, with humor or anything else.

I think it’s because I’ve been really busy fighting all that’s wrong in the world on Facebook. (I know that sentence’s likely got a misplaced modifier, but it kinda works just the way it’s written.) Scrolling Facebook these days is like driving down a highway clogged with one horrific accident after another. I know that I should just look forward and keep moving (or stay home more–a lot more), but I can’t seem to stop myself from getting on the road and then fixating on the wreckage. I’m either staring in fascinated horror or actually stopping to try to do something–even though I have no useful skills to save anyone or anything and am really just adding to the carnage by getting in the way.

Unless, of course, I’m posting mindless things I think are funny, like this exchange between my son and me in the hours before the stormaggedon that never quite materialized here in the northwest last weekend.

Although sometimes I just post silly things like this exchange with my son.

Sometimes I get something positive out of my social media travels, though–like this piece by Magda Pescayne at AskMoxie–which helped me understand that what I’m feeling in response to this damn presidential election (and systemic racism and rape culture/misogyny and violence andandand…) is grief as much as anger and fear. (If you’re in the same place, take a minute to click on through. It’s got some great advice on how to get through the next few weeks. Not that I think everything is going to be all better when the election is finally over. In fact, I’m starting to fear that things will be worse.)

It’s not like I needed another thing to add to my List of Things I’m Grieving, but I guess there’s some comfort in recognizing that that’s what’s going on.

Speaking of grief, well…that’s the kind of thing that can just fill a person’s day right up, isn’t it? It takes so many minutes to talk yourself into getting out of bed, to wander aimlessly around the house from one unfinished task to another, to remember what it is you came for at the grocery store, to make and cancel the plans with friends you promised your therapist you’d reach out to, to make and cancel appointments with your therapist, to pick up take-out because grocery shopping used up all the energy you have, to fixate on the question of how one can distinguish between grief and depression and get online to Google it and get sidetracked by Facebook (which only exacerbates your grief/depression or whatever it is), to revise and revise and revise a blog post you’re never going to publish, to fight a series of migraines and other physical ailments, to put on a happy face so you won’t have to talk about any of the things that are making you sad/numb/angry/numb/hollow/numb.

But even though I’ve been so busy with those things, I have found time to pick up a needle again. I’ve decided that embroidery is my version of all those adult coloring books that are going to be on all the year-end lists of things that are this year’s equivalent of the pet rock.

A long while back I found a piece of fabric with finished edges that I bought because I wanted to embroider on it.


Rather than embroider on it, though, I let it sit in various closets around our house. I think I didn’t let myself do anything with it because there is no practical reason for me to spend hours embellishing this piece of fabric. It won’t even serve any kind of decorative purpose, most likely, as the style and color scheme is unlike anything in the rest of our house.

But a weekend or so ago I picked it up because I was home alone and feeling really sick with migraine-med hangover and my grief/depression/whatever means I don’t have any house-related projects to do (because I no longer care much about doing things to make our house nicer) and because I just wanted to. I turned on an old movie and made a cup of tea and sat on the couch with the dogs and started “coloring.”


This is not going to be an awesome work of original art. It may well end up spending more time in various closets when I’m done with it. But, when I am lying awake in bed and my mind is spinningspinningspinning about all the things that trouble me these days, I’ve started turning it to this canvas. I imagine what I might add to the tree’s white foliage. I wonder how I can make it look like the trunk has been yarn-bombed. I consider the kinds of stitches I might use to fill the leaves.


Something about those middle-of-the-night wonderings calms my mind the way the actual work of it does in earlier hours of the day, and I’m usually able to get back to sleep.

That’s a good thing, I guess. At the very least, it keeps me from becoming another wreck for others to rubberneck at on their journey through this world.

So, yeah. That’s what’s new with me. How about you?


I almost forgot. It’s puzzle season again.


Laugh, dammit!

Once, as I was regaling a friend with the latest tale of my ex-husband’s abhorrent (to me) behavior, she laughed so hard she had to wipe tears and said, “You have to write about this! It’s hysterical.”

I was puzzled.

“What do you mean? This is terrible!” I said.

“Oh, I know,” she said. “But the way you tell it is hysterical. Seriously. You have to write about this some day.”

I have never thought of humor as my thing. I was the kid adults described as “7 going on 37.” When I was a preschooler, my grandmother’s sister called me The Judge. Even now, I almost never LOL.


As I explained on my About page, I once thought I could find my way to lightheartedness and laughter through crafts (hah!), but I’ve recently abandoned that.

Last week I began a class with Kate Carroll De Gutes that promised to teach me how to write about difficult subjects with humor. I signed up not because I feel driven to learn how to write about difficult subjects with humor. I signed up because:

a. I knew I’d need something positive this fall to fill the spaces opening up in my life.
b. I do better creative work with structure. Especially structure I’ve paid money for.
c. I’m still hanging onto the idea that this is the year of Voice.
d. I like Kate, who was in the cast of Portland’s Listen to Your Mother with me earlier this year.

It was really mostly D. For me, whether or not a class is good is almost never about the topic. It’s the teacher–and Kate is a wickedly good writer and a warm, interesting, kind person who does not suffer fools gladly. I knew I would learn stuff from her.

After our first class meeting, I decided that this is probably going to be the best money I’ll spend all fall. (Although I did, this weekend, finally find a pair of jeans that feel good and fit well and that were made in the US and sold in a small, locally owned shop and did not cost more than the hospital bill for my premature twins. That’s right up there, too.)

My biggest take-away so far? Humor doesn’t have to be LOL.

In fact, although I really liked Kate before signing up, I think I might now love her just for saying that she’s not a fan of A Very Popular Humor Essayist because their writing is mean. And that good humor isn’t mean. That being droll is being humorous. That there seems to be, I don’t know, a kind of humor that is serious.  I often find the world (and my walk through it) infinitely amusing, but when I try to share my amusement it seems there are always people telling me to look on the bright side or cheer up or not be so hard on myself or some such thing.

I want to snap at them, “I was being funny, dammit!”

Clearly, there are things I could learn.

Anyway, I’m sharing here a piece of writing I began in our class. Our prompt was something called a list essay (which is, as you’d think by its name, an essay in the form of a list). The topic:  A list of things you won’t do tomorrow.

It took me a bit to get started. My first few attempts were less than riveting:

I won’t wear yoga pants.
I won’t drink a latte.
I won’t wait in the pickup line at school.

Then I started thinking about a concrete tomorrow–the actual tomorrow I was going to be living, which was a Friday on a weekend Cane wouldn’t be home. That sent me down the path of thinking about all the different kinds of Friday nights I’ve lived in my life. The list I wrote (and shared) in class isn’t this one, but it’s what this one started from:

What I Will Not Do This Friday Night

Sit on the couch with my mom and my dog Fritzie, eating popcorn and watching Carol Burnett.

Attend a slumber party.

Lie on the living room floor with Fritzie and not-watch TV while wondering what the tall, skinny boy in the locker next to mine is doing right now.

Go to a high school football game and shake my pom poms in front of the crowd.

Drink a half-rack of Rainer pounders with my boyfriend and eat nachos and call it dinner. Feel rich even though we live in a shitty apartment infested with roaches.

Plan lessons.

Grade papers.

Know, with righteous conviction, that my work matters.

Fall asleep on the couch in front of a movie to avoid sex with my husband, a guy I once ate nachos and drank beer and laughed with on Friday nights.

Go into my babies’ room after they’ve gone to sleep and rest my hands lightly on their chests to make sure they’re still breathing.

Get home from “date night” by 7:00 so our babysitter can make it to the football game.

Snuggle my kids on the couch in front of a Disney movie while their father sleeps in his chair across the room.

Host a slumber party.

Anything with a husband.

Wonder if I should be writing more poems and grading fewer papers.

Make Grandma Spaghetti, which the kids will eat whole platefuls of even though it won’t be as good as Grandma’s.

Swallow hard at a high school football game because the cheerleaders and the jocks and the band nerds and the self-conscious kids shivering in their thin hoodies are so damn tender it makes my throat ache.

Fall in love.

Drive my daughter home from school, wishing I could listen to NPR on the radio but letting her bounce from one synthesized song to another because pretty soon I’ll be able to listen to NPR any time I want to.

Putter contentedly around my home.

Make dinner for my entire family and wish we could get through just one meal together without someone turning silent or mean.

Knock on my daughter’s door and poke my head into her room to tell her goodnight.

Slide between flannel sheets and fall asleep spooned into the body of the man I love.

Know when my daughter slides between her own sheets 3,000 miles away from mine, or what sounds are the last ones he hears before closing his eyes in the apartment that isn’t our home.

Sleep easily.


I know, it’s not funny. But I like to think there are moments of humor in it. Not the LOL kind. But humor the way it so often appears in life:  quietly, on the edges of things, or in the spaces between them.



Falling up


Thursday might be the first day of official fall, but there was unofficial fall all over our weekend.


It was long jeans and short boots and even a light jacket kind of weather. It was a trim the spent blooms from the garden and be glad there are still a few left kind of time.


My girl was home (sort of) for half a week.


She was flown home to attend the Pendleton Round-Up in her role as Rose Festival Queen. I’m so glad she had to come back for this. It’s almost as if her leaving cast a spell over the house, the kind you read about in fairy tales, and in the weeks since she left we’ve been sleep-living in suspended time–the way everyone is knocked out for years in Sleeping Beauty’s castle but when they wake up it’s as if they never stopped living.

Somehow, her coming back was like the Prince’s kiss that broke the spell and woke everyone. (OK, maybe not everyone. Maybe just me. I’m probably the only one who’s been creeping through fog.)

She noted in a text to me today that the day she flew back to school was exactly one month after the day she flew there in August. Maybe there’s some kind of magic in that.

Her visit home was at least a little bit enchanted. We were able to get ice cream at a (pretentious) Portland shop that is famous for its long lines, without waiting in line at all.


Of course, it might be that we got lucky because it was pouring down rain. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

I still miss her like crazy, but I’m getting used to the new normal. The grieving isn’t so much a howling these days as it is a quiet voice that startles me at odd moments. It’s more hollow than full, more yearning than demanding. It’s a companion whose presence I can yield to.

It’s nice to feel the season changing, a turning toward a different state of being. We had that glorious rain this weekend, and I unwrapped a puzzle that’s been wrapped in plastic on the living room table since July. We made chicken soup. I haven’t done anything in my studio, but I begin a writing class this week. It will be good to be forced to exercise those muscles with some like-minded people.

It’s nice to be looking up again.


This seems like a fitting view for these days. A moody mix of cloud and shadow and shots of color.

PS: You might notice that things look a bit different here. Messing with blog design is something I do when I’m feeling at odds with the blog. And blocked. I also revise the About page.

Doing home, doing life

Summer in a nutshell:


Beginning of summer

IMG_20160901_182749 (1)

End of summer

Back in June, struggling with tremendous change and uncertainty (which is where I’ve been living for at least two years), I gave myself permission to stop. Stop trying to figure everything out. Stop trying to make things better. Stop doing things unless they truly had to be done–so that I might figure out what it is I even like doing any more.

I think I had some idea that if I’d just stop, all the dust clouding my vision would settle and I’d find some kind of serenity and things would become green and shiny again. Or, at least, I would be able to see what is still green and shiny. And, well, yeah…what you see above is fairly indicative of how things look right now.

Most of you who read regularly followed me here from the home blog I used to write with Cane, where we (hopefully, optimistically, enthusiastically, joyfully) proclaimed that “how we do home is how we do life.”

The internets is full of people waxing philosophical about the meaning of home. My friend Laura pointed me to this (rather pedantic, privileged-perspective) piece last week that annoyed but also intrigued me a bit. In it, the writer posits that home “is a place where personal ideals are externalized or personal failures made visible.”

Well, clearly mine is more about personal failures made visible than anything else these days.


This summer we did fix some things that have long needed fixing. We finally gave up on doing anything cool/creative that we love with our entry and painted everything the same shade of brown and covered the stairs with a boring, serviceable carpet.


We got rid of yellowed vinyl flooring in a bathroom, painted the walls, and took out a plastic-covered vanity that surely replaced a solid wood one in a previous owner’s quest to attain a different sort of domestic ideal than any we ascribe to. We put in a new one that’s probably a lot like the original one.


Some of you might remember when we put some lipstick on the pig of the room that it was when we weren’t ready to replace the flooring and cabinet:


The bathroom needed new flooring and the new cabinet takes up less space, which is good, I suppose, but I’m not in love with it. I’m in meh with it. And though I don’t like to say it out loud, given the time and money we put into the changes, I think I  liked the funky lipstick version of it better.

Unlike so many of our earlier house projects, these were not labors of love. These projects were done not to make a home but to fix things that would need fixing if we decide to sell the house. (Kind of amazing how that shows, huh?)

When Cane and I wrote that “how we do home is how we do life” we saw it as a statement of power:  We can choose how we do home, and a complementary life would grow out of that choosing:

Want a simpler life? Create a simple home.

Want an authentic life? Create an authentic home.

Want a connected life? Create a home with routines and traditions and rituals that connect its inhabitants with each other and those who enter it.

What I’m coming to understand, though, is that this question of home/life might be a chicken/egg sort of thing:  Which comes first, home or life? Maybe how we do life is how we do home–and many of us struggle to do life the way we want to.

Some of us live in poverty. Some of us live with abuse. Some of us are living out the inevitable effects of multi-generation oppression. And, even those of us who are relatively privileged sometimes get thrown a curveball that we just can’t hit with anything resembling grace–if we can manage to hit it at all. Sometimes, life throws us not a curveball, but a series of fastballs discharging from a pitching machine set to its highest speed. Then, we end up doing life the best we can, swinging furiously, knowing we’re going to miss more balls than we hit.

Sometimes, life has us so worn out that caring about home feels really beside any point that matters.


I really miss caring about such things as growing vegetables and sewing grocery bags and planning meals and restoring banged up furniture that no one else loves any more. I keep trying to “act as if,” thinking that maybe I can make the equation work the other way:  Maybe if I just start doing the stuff, the caring will return and the life will follow suit.

So far, it hasn’t been that way. But as so many on the internets constantly remind me, we’re all just living in one season of life at a time, and they all pass. I’m hoping that as summer fades into fall, this one I’ve been living in for the past few years will move on, too. I’ll keep you posted.


This is not a dead pig. It was a live pig at the Clackamas County fair, which we visited at the end of the last month, and it has no super-important meaning to this post. I just like to end posts with a photo and couldn’t bring myself to use another dead plant one (although I have plenty of dead plants that could be up for the task.) Going with this because there was a reference to pigs in the post, and, to be honest, there is something in this photo that speaks to my current state of being. Especially that food trough is resting on the pig’s head.





“I’m sure the next the next chapter will be wonderful but I’m going to need to linger a bit on this one before I can turn the page.”
–message from a friend whose daughter left for college last weekend

Photo on 2010-05-21 at 20.30

There is much I would like to be able to write about what I’ve learned in the past few weeks as I’ve been letting go of my daughter. It’s too close, though, and my feelings too raw, for me to begin sorting all the thinking I’ve been doing into a clear, coherent post.

I can offer this, though:

We don’t allow enough messiness in our culture. We want things–especially feelings–to be simple, clean, and neat, but living fully is not conducive to tidiness.


This experience of sending my daughter 3,000 miles away into the beginning of her life apart from me–it is messy, and ragged, and complex. I am a big, hot, tangled mess of emotions these days:  elation, gratitude, sorrow, regret, longing, hope, relief, pride, joy, loneliness, love.

The day she left, these feelings knocked me to the floor–literally–but I keep reminding myself of the words I’ve offered to others in their grief:

The size of the pain is commensurate with the size of the love.


If the size of my feelings is any indicator, well…my love for my child  is bigger than anything I’ve known. And what it’s been looking like lately, in concrete terms, is some mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime:

Picture me the day after she leaves, making myself go to the gym (because exercise makes us feel better! Right?) and feeling a dull, achey missing-her because the gym reminds me of all the yoga/pilates classes Grace took with me when she was working on an alternate PE credit and how I laughed and laughed at her half-assed poses and the way she went to bathroom every. single. time during the first pilates track.

If you were there you’d see me doing OK, holding it together despite my sadness, until the song about loving you for a thousand years comes on, and then there I am, losing it in child’s pose as I hear

Time stands still
Beauty in all she is
I will be brave
I will not let anything take away
What’s standing in front of me

and I’m stuck there long after everyone else has transitioned to down dog because I don’t want anyone to see the tears dripping onto my smelly yoga matt while I tell myself to breathe, breathe, breathe.

Later, at home (after tearing up, again, in the produce section of the grocery store when I realize I won’t need to buy as many apples any more) I look up the lyrics to the whole song and watch the video (because the song’s chorus is now stuck on repeat in my head) and learn for the first time that the song is from a Twilight movie and it’s about Bella and Edward’s stupid vampire love–which, of course, lasts for 1,000 years because they never, ever die–and I think about how I got all torn up over a vampire love song (which could have ominous symbolism if I think too hard about it) and how Grace would roll her eyes at all of this and remind me of how awesome it was when my mother and I took her to a Twilight marathon that culminated in a midnight premiere at which 1,000 (or so) tween girls on Team Jacob squealed deliriously every time he took off his shirt (which he did about a thousand times).

Photo 344

This is the kind of thing I’ve been keeping to myself not only because it’s strange and embarrassing, but also because in response to expressing the harder emotions I’ve been feeling–my sorrow, my fear, my regret–I have been given the message, more than once, with good intentions, I know, that I should be grateful, that I should feel good because it is time for this to happen, because my daughter has great opportunities, because her success means I’ve done a good job being her parent.

True, every word. I am, and I do. But.

It’s not helpful, and it feels like the world wants me to just move along, and I’M NOT READY TO.


The raw, howling grief I felt in the first hours after her departure is waning–though it continues to flare unexpectedly–and while part of me is grateful for the relief, there is another part of me that wants to hold on to it, does not want to feel it subside, does not want to go gentle into any kind of parenting good night.

That deep, unreal, this-can’t-really-be-happening sorrow feels like shit, to be sure, but it also feels holy. It feels like a testament to having fully loved with every single part of my being. It feels like some kind of honoring of the deep bond I’ve shared with my daughter over more than 18 years.


I get that we will still have a bond that transcends time and distance, but we are leaving behind the life that nurtured it. That bond did not live in the big, shiny, occasional moments we shared–the holiday dinners, the award ceremonies, the vacations and birthday parties and special treats. It grew over years of day-to-day, mundane, sometimes difficult, intimate moments that only those who live together experience.

And we won’t be doing that any more.

sleeping grace




Why would I easily let this kind of connection go? Why should we think that such a gift can or should be quickly and neatly packed up and put away?

Beth Berry, who writes the blog Revolution from Home, just wrote a beautiful post about resisting the messages to “bounce back” after giving birth. In it, she says:

The very notion that we are meant to change as little as possible, and even revert back to the women we were before we became mothers is not only unrealistic, but it’s an insult to women of all ages, demographics, shapes, and sizes. It makes a mockery of the powerful passage into one of the most essential roles a human can live into…

When my children arrived they completely altered the shape of my days–which altered the shape of my life. Their presence transformed every part of it. Why, then, wouldn’t their leaving do the same?

Why am I feeling ashamed to be so profoundly impacted by it, as if my inability to just be happy and move on means that I’m somehow weak or our relationship too close to be healthy? My children’s birth was a profound experience, and the one I’m having now–of letting go of what we’ve been, of entering into a new life that will reshape both of us, again–is profound, too. And profound experiences should not, I think, be rushed.


So, like my friend, I am going to linger. I will not be bouncing back, and that is OK. It is OK to be the kind of mess I have been–just like it is fine to keep wearing maternity clothes in the weeks after giving birth and go days without showering and cry because  your baby’s fingernails are just so exquisite–because the whole thing is overwhelming and that’s all you can manage to do. It is OK because, just as it was during that first monumental transition, we are never going to be what we once were, but we are all going to be OK.

Just not right away. Like my friend, I need a bit more time before I can dive into the next chapter. I’m going to take it.



Taking the long way home

Twenty-five summers ago, I lived in a sweet little house in a charming old southeast Portland neighborhood. It was the first house I owned, bought not long after I married and started my first teaching job.


It was only a few blocks from a park where I walked every day with my dog, Billie. The previous winter we’d gone to the mall one Sunday morning to buy a Billie Holiday CD (remember those?), but the record store was closed. The pet store wasn’t. This was before I knew about puppy mills. Before I knew the first thing about taking care of another living being. Or about making commitments.

That summer, Billie and I went on many walks, traversing up and down the sidewalks of our neighborhood’s tree-lined streets. I remember looking up into the trees, thinking that their branches looked like canopies. I wrote that into a poem I worked on later that fall, thinking that no one else had ever seen how trees looked like canopies. I didn’t know, then, that many people have seen canopies when looking up at trees that flank both sides of a street. These were so different from the trees of my childhood neighborhood, which was filled with Douglas fir and cedar. We had no sidewalks, nor any tree-lined streets. It didn’t occur to me that these new trees were common, or that my perception of them might be.


I was lonely that summer. I had lived in that charming neighborhood less than a year, and in that city for less than two. I had spent most of those months working the long days of a first-year teacher. Although there were people at work I was friendly with, I hadn’t made any real friends, there or anywhere else.

My husband worked during the days and studied for the MCAT in the evenings. I spent my days walking the dog, working out to an aerobics TV show, sanding (probably lead-filled) paint from the woodwork of our 1920’s house (I didn’t know about lead-based paint then, either, even though I should have) while watching soap operas, planning dinner, and waiting for the hour or so I’d get his company when he came home. I made the uninsulated attic into the kind of private space I longed for as a teen-ager, not realizing that it would always be too hot up there in the summer and too cold in the winter, or that I didn’t need such a space because the whole house was my space. There was nothing I needed sanctuary from within its walls.

That husband–he was a smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle person who, like me, had no business getting married or adopting dogs. He was as good to me as any good person can be who is too young to get married. I was not as good to him. Or to myself.

Instead of facing the chasm within that my loneliness illuminated with blinding intensity, I ran away from it. I ran away from him, and our dog, and the house, and the neighborhood, and the park filled with geese that Billie loved to bark at. I ran away from all of it, too blind and scared to see that I had everything I’d ever wanted, right there:  a good person who loved me, a safe and cozy home, meaningful work, the promise of children with a man who would be a good father to them.

I didn’t know that many, many people had looked up into the same void and seen the same thing I’d seen, and given it the same wrong names I gave it.


The weekend before last, Cane and I drove through my old neighborhood on our way to spend a late afternoon on the river. As I always do when driving through there, I felt nostalgic and wistful. The aftertaste of regret lingered at the back of my throat.

I thought of my house project, my recent fascination with small, working-class houses. My first husband and I bought that first house with the salaries of a first-year teacher and a lab tech. Although Cane and I both have equity in another home and advanced degrees and decades of work in our field, this neighborhood is out of our reach now, even if we could make our lives fit within its geographic boundaries. That is due as much to our respective (poor) life choices as to Portland’s gentrification, and we know the sting we feel is nothing compared to the pain of those whose communities are lost to them through the effects of systemic racism and other injustices. Still, it hurts.

As we drove through again on our way home, I thought about the home of a colleague I’d recently visited. Her lovely Portland house sits in an even more charming neighborhood, and it is filled with photos of her family. I could see how all of them have grown, together, through two decades or more. I imagined, briefly, the home and life I might have had if I’d faced my demons 25 years ago, if I hadn’t left that kind boy I married and we’d done the hard work of growing up together.

“I should never have left here,” I said to Cane as we drove back home. “I had everything I wanted, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Well, then, you wouldn’t have had your children,” he said.

“Oh, I know. I know. That’s what I always tell myself. But as my daughter reminds me whenever I say that’s why I’ll never regret marrying their dad, I probably would have had different children I love as much as I love them. I’d never have known them, so I wouldn’t have missed them.”

“You can’t know that,” he said. “You might not have been able to have any children at all.”

He is, of course, right. We can never really know where a different choice at a fork in our life’s road might have taken us. We always imagine the best-case scenario when we’re punishing ourselves for the choices we didn’t make but wish we had. In mine, I somehow get to have the same children I have now.

“Well,” I said, reaching for the hand of the smart, funny, earnest, kind, and gentle man who loves me now and takes no offense when I suggest that perhaps I should be married to someone else, “I know I wouldn’t be sitting here with you, so I guess I need to just get over all that.” I squeezed his hand, hoping he knew I meant it, hoping my daughter knows that any life I might have had without her and her brother would have been a lesser one.


On one my friend Jill’s recent, always-wonderful weekly list of Something Good, I found this post by Austin Kleon, about bliss stations. In it, he writes:

“It’s felt impossible lately not to be distracted and despondent. I’m trying to spend as much time at my bliss station as I can.”

Between events in the world around us and those in my own private world, I know more than I’d like to about being distracted and despondent. But what is a bliss station? Kleon, quoting Joseph Campbell, says that it is

“a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation.”

Kleon wonders if it is enough to have either a particular place or a particular time, and reading his words I realized that in this summer I have been lucky enough to have both:  Time almost every morning, and my own, dedicated creative space.


Although I found solace in this space during the spring, over the weeks of this summer I have entered it only to iron clothes or drop off junk I didn’t want to take the time to find a real home for.


I thought of another post by another friend, Shannon’s musings about how hard it can be to get started again after a creative dry spell.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I wanted for years:  time and space to create. I thought of all the times in my life I’ve been blind to what is in front of me, and how I don’t want to be that way any more.

I thought about how good it would be to spit the taste of regret out of my mouth.


I went back to my old neighborhood, to take photos for my project. To take inventory. To confront my regrets. To see.

The old park, which once had a big, flat, grassy open field, swing sets, and a square, man-made pond, has been transformed into a natural wild space.


I didn’t see any of the geese Billie used to chase, but a stream was home to delightful ducks.


I walked the neighborhood sidewalks I used to walk with Billie, remembering the young woman I was 25 years ago. Trying to figure out how to forgive her.

I took photos of houses I might want to do something with.


You can’t see the older woman sitting in a chair in front of the window, reading a book. But she’s there.

I left when I felt a migraine coming on. I went home and took a nap, grateful for the time and space to do that.


A few days later, I went into my creative space, wondering if I could cultivate bliss there. I pulled out my scraps of text about houses.


I set aside a few that spoke to me, when I thought about my first house.


I sketched it.


That was enough for one day.


I had coffee one morning with a friend who is also sending a child to college in a few weeks. The day my daughter flies out, she will be heading south with her husband and son in a car packed with the college supplies that have been accumulating on her dining room table all summer.

We compared notes on the unfortunate places we’ve been overcome by tears.

“I couldn’t stop crying in the detergent row at Target,” she said. “Another woman took a tissue from the box in her cart and gave it to me.”

We laughed.

“I’ve come to understand,” I said, “that as much as I’m crying about how I will miss her–and I will, terribly–I’m also crying over my own mortality.” She nodded. We struggled for words to capture what it is, exactly, we’re mourning.

“Their lives aren’t going to be about us any more.”

“It’s just gone so quickly. I’m not ready to let it go.”

“Our time has passed. It’s someone else’s turn.”

“And it’s too late now to do some things right.”



I saw my therapist.

“I don’t want to talk about how things are going,” I said. “I don’t want to talk about Cane or his daughter or my daughter leaving for college or what’s happening with my son. I want to stop dealing with the surface of things.”

“OK,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Here,” I said, handing her a book open to a poem. “I wrote this maybe 20 years ago.”

A Map to the Future

You try not to despise her.
You know it isn’t really fair:
What more could be expected
of one such as she,
growing in the twin shadows
of anger and expectation?

She was the kind of girl who ran
to the edges of cliffs and jumped,
just jumped–
not because she was daring
but because she didn’t know
there were cliffs and once there,
jumping seemed the only option.
She was that blind
to her own geography.

You walk away
when you sense her
wandering through the dark
valleys of memory, wish
she could be forever exiled.
You can’t help but regret
all that she lost or wasted,
and you can’t seem to forgive her
for what she never knew,
want only to put that floundering
child away from you, forever,

do not see that you must
carry her with you
if you are ever to climb
from your desperate canyons
and lie upon the grassy meadows
that frame those gaping holes.

“It’s beautiful,” she said.

“I want to know how to do it,” I said.


Last Saturday I returned to my bliss station again.







That morning, my daughter found me there. As she settled into the corner chair, I stopped what I was doing. I sat on the floor, and we chatted for a good long time–about the election, and how different some things were when I was her age, and about college, and the effects of growing up with dysfunction in your family, and the meaning of life, and what kind of life she wants to have.

“My therapist told me the other day that it takes three generations for a family to fully recover from addiction, abuse, trauma,” I told her. “But it gets better with each one.”

It was just the two of us home together all day. I vacuumed the floor of her room, which she (and sometimes I) have been cleaning out for the past two weeks. It is still filled with her clothes, her toiletries, her scent, but it is empty of the things that made it hers. I did cry some, alone in there, but not the way I did the morning I took all the bags of stuff she no longer wants to the thrift store–her cheerleading uniform, her many school spirit t-shirts, the vampire series books she devoured as a young teen, the photo display thingy she wanted when we re-did her room a few summers ago, the pottery she painted over the course of many trips to visit her grandparents.

“Do you think we’re ever going to paint pottery again?” I asked her as she put those things in the bag.

“If you pay,” she said, grinning. I kept two small pieces and let the rest go. She thought I was being silly to keep them, that I should let go of all of them. Thinking of the clay monster I made in third grade that resides, still, in my parents’ bedroom, I told her that it’s good to be silly sometimes.


After vacuuming, I thought about doing more of the things on my never-done to-do list, but she wanted me to watch Gilmore Girls with her, so I did. Somewhere during the second episode, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any of those things that day. I was going to just be, with my girl, all day long.

We might not get this again before she leaves, I thought, just the two of us alone for the whole day.

We puttered around a bit before going out to get pedicures. We had dinner at our favorite noodle place. We came home and made popcorn and watched Legally Blonde, an old favorite of hers. She deconstructed the feminist messages she sees in it. She left before the movie ended, to accept a last-minute invitation from friends.

I watched the end of the movie by myself, feeling the emptiness of the house settle around me. I didn’t let myself shrug it off my shoulders. The weight of it was uncomfortable, but I could hold it.

I thought about how I have, right now, things I’ve wanted for years. I felt grateful that the woman I’ve become is  stronger than that girl I was 25 years ago. That I knew it wouldn’t be nighttime in an empty house forever–that the next morning I would wake up to a day filled with light and the return of people I love, where I could enter into a bliss station and begin this post and keep working on projects with eyes that are becoming increasingly clear.


Poem ©2002 by Bellowing Ark Press.



Grief and creativity

This week’s ear worm song:

When I tell my therapist that I can’t talk about my daughter’s impending departure for college without crying, she says, “Of course. You’re grieving.”


“Grief” feels like too strong a word. I mean, c’mon. She’s not dying.

But last week, as the time left for her to live with us changed from the unit of month to week, I have found that I often can’t even think about it now without crying. Yesterday as we made breakfast, I had the thought that Cane should make his beignets, her favorite, before she goes, and I was so flooded with memories my body literally couldn’t contain them.

Time has taken on an almost tangible, viscous quality. I have no work-based entries to make into this creative notebook because, I am learning, creativity requires a kind of mental fluidity that’s beyond me right now. I feel suspended in some kind of thick, gelatinous reality that is not reality. Although time is moving, I am not, and it feels I won’t be able to until what’s going to come next is finally here.

It’s true:  No one’s dying. But something is–the life I’ve been living for more than 18 years. It might seem as if that statement’s not true; in that 18 years I’ve changed jobs and homes and life partners. Through all of that, though, my kids were the constant, the one thing I knew I’d never leave, the only thing I’ve ever remained wholly true to.


I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that when you have kids, your life stops being all about you. It becomes about them. You’re no longer the most important person in it.

Um, no.

It’s still all about you:  When you have kids, they have to go where you take them and do what you tell them to do.  They are woven into the fabric of your every day. They become your people, and you are theirs, and you are a family, a unit in the world.

Truth is, I didn’t feel my life really started until they came into it. Now, that life–with both of my children–that’s ending, and it’s happening less than a year after the end of the family life Cane and I tried to create.


So, yeah:  I guess I’m grieving. And it’s kicking the stuffing out of my creative productivity.

Back in the spring, I finally “finished” the house project I’d been documenting here:


This isn’t the final product, but it’s close enough. I did finish it by covering it with a glaze.

I’m not pleased with the final result. It’s too cute; I was trying to express something more serious than this image conveys. The book pages I used to make the house came from a chapter of a history text on the Industrial Revolution. It talked about the terrible housing conditions for the working poor in many cities, and how difficult it was for mothers, especially, to care for their children. The text for the tree came from a children’s book about animal habitats. When I started it, I had recently read a YA novel, The Hired Girl, in which the protagonist runs away from her abusive father and works as a maid for a wealthy family in the city. I wanted to create a piece that would provoke thought about need vs. want, resources, social class, and how we nurture our young (and don’t). The leaves around the edge make this too cutesy/cheery, and I don’t like them.

There are also some issues with my (lack of) skill. Part of the reason it looks too cute is that I don’t have the skill to execute the vision I had in my head.

As a learning piece, though, it’s fine. I learned some things doing this one that will serve me in the next. I’m ready to let it go and move on. Working on this piece, while simultaneously thinking lots of personal thoughts about housing, home, resources, needs, and privilege, has me interested in small (not tiny) houses, particularly those in what were once working-class neighborhoods. Portland (OR) is in the midst of a housing crisis. A deep history of racist housing policies and current gentrification are driving many out of Portland. (If you’re interested, this article recently published in The Atlantic is an important read.)

Although I’ve tried a few times to go into my studio and begin some new work, I haven’t gotten anywhere in there. The most I’ve been able to do is go on walks and take some pictures.  I’m posting them here so I have easy access to them:










Great photography wasn’t my goal. I just snapped these with my phone. I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. These are just interesting to me, and even though I don’t seem to be in a place to do anything much with them right now, I know that will change.

I’ve been doing creative work long enough now to know this is just the way of it. Sometimes, other things in our life use up our creative energy. Sometimes, those very things are the source material for future work. This might seem like a disjointed post–about grief and kids leaving home and…working class houses and gentrification and displacement?–but I know it’s all connected. Just as I know there will be future work.

It always comes back. There are so few enduring constants in any life, but this is one of them in mine.


About those darling succulents…

Remember these?

2016-02-05 13.09.24

Back in February, inspired by lo the many, many images of cunning little succulent pots I’ve seen online…

Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 8.13.15 AM

I decided that turning these sweet little 70’s coffee cups into such planters would give me justification for buying them.

2016-01-16 14.12.14

Here’s what they don’t tell you in all those blog posts:  If you do even a half-way decent job of nurturing your succulents, they will grow out of those adorable little pots:


And it will happen far more quickly and spectacularly than you ever thought it could.




As you see new shoots budding, you realize that the charming vision you had about those pots is going to have to be abandoned. You are going to have to let it (and them) go. If you want those succulents to keep living, you’re going to have to find a new place for them to grow. Because–of course!–they have to keep growing. The only way to not grow is to die.


And you don’t want that:


So you look for new pots, ones with more space. You prepare to transplant. You let their old life, in the little cups on the kitchen window sill, go. It’s hard. They were so sweet, and you loved them even more than you thought you would. You know how empty the sill is going to look without them.

In not unrelated news, this song–released the year my daughter was born (yes, that was really 18 years ago!)–has been playing on repeat in my head the past few days:


Walking my talk, the better late than never version


I’ve been finding it kinda ironic that I proclaimed “voice” my word of the year, and where I find myself living now is a place that requires me to (mostly) shut up and listen.

But “voice” is what carried me to the Portland production of Listen to Your Mother, which has been one of the best experiences of my year. We performed the show in early May, and last week videos from all of the shows were released online.

I’d sort of forgotten that was going to happen, and when it did I found myself feeling…a whole bunch of things, but, mostly, vulnerable.

A few days after they were out, a  friend from the cast asked me why I hadn’t posted about it on Facebook, and aside from questions about vanity and the general weirdness of seeing oneself on video, I realized that I was wrestling again with  questions about when and when not to publish, and who has a right to tell which stories. It was feeling like one thing to tell a story that involves our children in a blog post, or in a small live performance, but another one to tell it on video and then direct people to that video. I’m still not sure if it is different or not, but it feels like it might be.

I am a deep believer in the power of story and preach (often) the necessity of telling them. I know how important it is for us to tell our personal stories, particularly about topics that carry stigma. I wrote the blog post that became the story I told on stage because I wanted to create something to help others understand what it is like to parent a child with a mental illness. I hoped that doing so might alleviate for someone else the fear, guilt, and isolation I felt early on. It always helps to know that we’re not alone in grappling with a hard challenge.

Listen to Your Mother Portland-2016-022

But, but, but…

I am a mother before I am anything else, and the world can be a cruel place. There can be real consequences to sharing your membership in a stigmatized group. While I want to serve others, I serve our children first. Always. It is hard, often, to know how to best do that. I want to do my small part to make the larger world a better place (for everyone’s children), but I don’t want to hurt my children’s personal world to do that.

After a fair amount of internal hand-wringing and conversations with good friends, I’ve decided that the potential rewards outweigh the potential risks. So many people right now are being called upon to be brave, in so much larger ways. The hard stories that help us see each other more truly and fully are the ones we most need to tell. So, here’s my offering, my small act of courage, some walk to go with my importance-of-sharing-our-stories talk:

You can click here to get to  the national Listen to Your Mother post that will connect you with all 500+ videos from this year’s productions across the country. You can find videos by location or you can browse featured playlists. (I am feeling really honored that mine was selected as a featured video.) If you couldn’t attend the Portland show and want to experience the next-best thing-to-being-there, you can go to the Portland playlist and watch it in order. Our producers did a fantastic job of putting together an anthology of stories best listened to in the order they were presented. (Nope, not biased at all!)

Before you click over, I warn you:  You may find yourself spending more time there than you planned. The stories (and their tellers) are so compelling. Raw humanity always is, isn’t it?


Color photos by Elizabeth Sattleberger of Lizilu Photography
lack-and-white photo by Amy McMullen (of our wonderful cast).